Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (January 26): Rory McIlroy outshone playing partners Tiger Woods and Luke Donald with a five-under-par opening round of 67 in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
While the 22-year-old US Open champion took a share of the early lead with Swede Robert Karlsson thanks to a chip-in birdie on his penultimate hole, Woods shot a bogey-free 70 and world number one Donald a 71. China’s Liang Wen-chong also made a bright start, matching Woods’ 70 despite a disappointing bogey-six at the last. Korean KJ Choi and Scot Colin Montgomerie both signed for 71s.
McIlroy’s ball-striking was not at its best, but like Karlsson he scrambled brilliantly in his first tournament since recovering from suspected Dengue fever.
Woods was playing his first event since ending more than two years without a victory last month, but did not make the most of his chances and collected birdies only at the 11th – his second of the day – and short fourth, where he almost holed-in-one. Woods said: “I just had a hard time getting a feel for these greens. It was difficult and my speed was off.”
Donald, meanwhile, followed eight opening pars with back-to-back birdies, but could not save par from the sand on the 200-yard seventh. Donald said: “It was fun to be part of that threesome – Tiger and Rory are huge names in the world of sport. Rory took advantage of a few more opportunities. I didn’t make too many putts.”
McIlroy had thrown down the gauntlet with a hat-trick of birdies from the 11th, holing from nine, 12 and three feet. Then came bogeys at the 14th and 17th, but he added another birdie on the long 18th despite his wild second shot hitting the hospitality tent.
A superb pitch from the rough to three feet at the 600-yard second took him to four-under and then came the added bonus at the long eighth after he had twice been in the rough and just missed the green.
He and Karlsson, who also relied on his short game more than he would have liked, were one stroke ahead of McIlroy’s fellow Northern Irishman Gareth Maybin.
“It was a good score and a great way to start 2012, but I don’t feel I drove the ball particularly well and it’s something I’ve got to work on. It was nothing that a good practice session won’t fix,” said McIlroy, who has been fifth, third and second on the course the last three years. “I feel it suits me really well. Just one problem – it suits Martin Kaymer even better.”
The German world number four, winner three of the last four years, was among the later starters in the first round with Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia. Kaymer’s fond memories of the course did not help him on the opening hole, where a double-bogey six instantly left him seven adrift of McIlroy and Karlsson.
He dropped another shot on the fifth, while Westwood mixed two birdies with three bogeys in the first seven holes and Garcia’s golf, a mixed bag too, left him level-par approaching the turn.
England’s Richard Finch joined Maybin in third place in dramatic fashion, holing his approach to the 469-yard sixth for an eagle-two and finishing with back-to-back birdies.